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Rutgers Food Innovation Center helps build, accelerate new food businesses

Nolan Lewin, acting executive director and director of operations of the Food Innovation Center (FIC) standing with Anshu Dua, co-founder of the Chaat Company. – Photo by Rutgers.edu

The Rutgers Food Innovation Center (FIC) helps businesses in the food and beverage space start, accelerate and commercialize, said Acting Executive Director and Director of Operations Nolan Lewin.

“Depending on where they are in the market, we help them do different things. That could be ingredients or formulations, pointing them in the right direction for packaging materials, helping them go through pilot plant tests, small runs of production, introducing them to buyers in the market,” he said. “It’s quite a wide range of things that we do.”

The center is part of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station under the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Lewin said, and has locations in Bridgeton, Piscataway and Bordentown. The Piscataway location opened its doors in 1992.

Industry veterans make up the FIC team and none are from academia, Lewin said. Some have experience working at companies like Campbell Soup, Unilever and Bai Brands.

“What we bring to the centers is our expertise and our understanding of how to introduce products and grow them and commercialize them,” Lewin said.

Lewin said he has been at the center for almost two years, previously working as a plant manager at Bai Brands. He said that over the course of his career, he owned businesses, restaurants, catering services and manufacturing facilities. The center lets him share his experience with others.

“At this stage in my career I thought that I could help give back to the community and give back to people who are just starting out by offering some of the expertise I have,” he said.

The center often works with Rutgers graduates and students, Lewin said. A Rutgers food science student came in to research tiger nuts for Dr. Albert Ayeni’s class in the Department of Plant Biology.

“We have student interns that work with some of the clients in Piscataway on a regular basis. We just hosted the Douglass resident externship a few weeks ago in Piscataway,” he said. “The students are very involved. We try and hold an annual event on campus. Last year it was at the Honors College where we presented all of the clients that are manufacturing in Piscataway and in Bridgeton so students can get an idea of what type of projects we work on.”

For students looking to get into the industry, Lewin said the biggest demand is in quality control. He wants students to learn as much as they can about food science and the microbiology aspects of the field.

“As you see from all the recalls that are happening, there’s a need for people who understand food science, for people who understand the microbiology behind it, the pathogens that can affect food and drink and the packaging component,” he said. “Quality managers, who are overseeing food production, are making six figures today.”

The center’s most famous project, Lewin said, is the Impossible Burger. 

“We actually started them here in Bridgeton,” he said.

Lewin said that with the success of the Impossible Burger, a growing trend is plant-based products. Clients are often coming to the center seeking cleaner labels, less preservatives, less sugar or protein-based, healthier products.

Some clients come in with a concept or prototype they have been working on in a kitchen, at home or in a restaurant, and others just want to put grandma’s recipe in a jar, he said. The center jumps in wherever the client is stuck and gears them toward success.

“Most of the clients that we’ve had here, we have a pretty high success rate, probably (more than) 75% of the clients that have come here are either still in existence or have sold their brand to somebody else who still has it,” he said.

The center is a fee-for-service based entity and charges for time, consulting work and use of facilities, Lewin said. They are much less expensive than other entities that offer similar services.

 The center, he said, is also one of the few centers in the country that is university-affiliated and has both United States Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration certification.

“We’re very unique,” he said. “That was very forward thinking of the founders, (Margaret) Brennan-Tonetta and the people she started the center with.”

Lewin also said the center has some exciting projects this year. 

“Some of them are proprietary so we can’t talk about them yet ... But we have some pretty big projects that are coming up that are pretty innovative – some new types of products that you haven’t seen or heard of before,” he said.